Some people with asthma find that exercise triggers their asthma. In theory, any form of physical activity - from a stroll or climbing the stairs to a Zumba class or a game of tennis - can trigger asthma symptoms or an asthma attack. But the good news is that it's possible to reduce the risk of this happening so that you can enjoy the many benefits of exercise. Here's how you can join in, have fun and keep fit!
Why can exercise increase your risk of asthma symptoms or an asthma attack?
Usually, you breathe in through your nose, so the air is warmed and moistened. When you exercise, you tend to breathe faster and in through your mouth, so the air you inhale is colder and drier. In some people with asthma, the airways are sensitive to these changes in temperature and humidity and they react by getting narrower. This can lead to asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, a shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Exercise is more likely to trigger asthma symptoms if your asthma isn't well managed.
What is exercise-induced asthma?
Some people find that they have symptoms of asthma only when they exercise and not at any other times. This is sometimes known as exercise-induced asthma. The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma are the same, but are usually most intense after exercising and then gradually improve. Some people with exercise-induced asthma already have a diagnosis of asthma, while others only get asthma symptoms when they exercise.
If you think you have asthma that comes on only after you exercise, let your GP or asthma nurse know. To help you manage your asthma they may ask you to record some peak flow readings.
If you do have exercise-induced asthma, the treatment is the same and you can still exercise. You just need to find ways to reduce the risk of exercising affecting you. Start by talking to your GP or asthma nurse and reading our tips below.
How do I know exercise is a trigger?
When you're exercising, it's normal if:
- you're breathing faster and harder
- your heart is beating faster
- you're feeling hot and sweaty
- you look flushed.
You know that exercise has triggered asthma symptoms and you need to stop if you:
- start coughing/wheezing
- are gasping for air/very short of breath/can't get enough air
- feel tightness in the chest
- have trouble speaking in short sentences
- younger children may complain that their chest or tummy hurts.
You're having an asthma attack and you need to get help immediately if:
- your reliever inhaler doesn't help
- your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
- you're too breathless to speak.
There's information here about what to do if you're having an asthma attack.
What's the best way to reduce the risk of exercise affecting you?
The best way to avoid exercise triggering asthma symptoms is to manage your asthma well:
- Take your medication exactly as prescribed and discussed with your GP or asthma nurse.
- Check with your GP or asthma nurse that you're using your inhaler correctly.
- Use an up to date written asthma action plan and keep it where you can see it (on the fridge, for example).
- Go for regular asthma reviews.
You can also try these practical tips:
- Warm up and warm down for 10-15 minutes before and after exercising.
- If you're exercising with someone else, make sure they know you have asthma, and that you have a reliever inhaler with you.
- If you have symptoms when you exercise, stop, take your reliever inhaler and wait until you feel better before starting again.
- In colder weather, symptoms are even more likely during exercise because when the air is cold it can irritate the sensitive airways. One way to avoid this problem is to exercise indoors during the winter months. Or, consider doing less vigorous exercise - go for a power walk instead of a run, for example.
- Dress appropriately. If it's cold, make sure your chest and throat are covered and keep a scarf around your nose.
- If you regularly have asthma symptoms when you exercise, speak to your GP or asthma nurse who can assess your treatment.
Last updated May 2016
Next review due May 2019